Thursday, September 21, 2006

On April 16, 2002 I received a rejection that threw me into a rage. It wasn't my first rejection and it wasn't from a magazine I liked. Why did I send work there? Good question. This particular magazine promised a personal critique of all submissions and a free subscription to all "serious poets" regardless of whether the work is taken.

Rejection + no free subscription deeming me 'unserious' + some really inane, idiotic comments in my personal critique = my not submitting my work anywhere for six months and putting all my energies into starting my jewelry design business.

I'm glad that happened. Not because it was discouraging, but because I clearly needed a grip and reaccess my priorities and why I was doing what I was doing. Not worrying about where I was going to send my work, not standing by the mailbox waiting for submission responses -- but focusing on creation, both with the jewelry and the poems I was still writing because I wanted to write them -- it was like going on one of those juice-fast diets. Cleansing.

I wrote about this here before, but the next year I injured myself and for several weeks couldn't make jewelry -- spent most of my time on the sofa surfing online poetry magazine and blogs. Back then I didn't edit an online magazine or blog (cause blogs were for socially inept weirdos and I had plenty of real friends). What I found were a lot of poets my age (and some younger) doing things I wanted to be doing. They weren't letting other people in perceived positions of influence or power stop them from their thing. Many weren't living in big cities or "poetry-centers" yet had daily interactions, sharing of ideas, sharing their poems, developing friendships with other poets from all over. After I got over my initial envy, I started thinking maybe I could do my thing too. You know, get over myself and get back to work.

Maybe this is just a cycle I have to go through every time I graduate. I had to get over myself after I graduated from my "prestigious" university and accept I was right where a 21 year-old just entering the job force belonged -- working a graveyard shift from Tuesday through Saturday doing a job I didn't much like. Luckily I'm not a quitter, because that job that I deemed so beneath me was an amazing opportunity and taught me many things I use on a regular basis.

The year following my completion of my MFA was weird too. The day after I got back from graduation, the telephone rang at 6:45 a.m. (who calls at that hour other than to say somebody died?). Chris answered in a sleepy haze -- it was for me, but he told the caller I wasn't available and to leave a message. The caller was a reader from Boulevard (I have no idea who) and he wanted to talk to me because he just loved my poems and he was sending them up to the editor and he had a really good feeling about the whole thing. After I got over my initial anger at Chris for not giving me the damn phone (at that point I had only placed one poem so any attention was a big deal), I was esctatic. My poems were going to appear in Boulevard! I was really going places! (hooohaaaaheeeee)

You see where this is going -- months later and after two letters of inquiry I got that "oooh, so close" handwritten letter from the editor. That was right around the time of the no-free-subscription-for-you rejection. It was a god damn conspiracy, I tell ya.

What happened to those poems? 3 out of 4 of the poems sent to the latter and all 3 of the Boulevard submitted poems eventually appeared in publications that I really like (and where they belonged).

But they wouldn't have appeared anywhere if I hadn't checked myself before I wrecked . . .

Present 500 pound gorilla excluded, little, if any, of my work appears in places I thought I needed to get into when I first graduated. Some folks consider that as my settling, or as evidence of my suckitude, mediocrity, lice-riddenosity. Everyone has their opinion. I consider my putting so much value on those things back then as a lack of vision, confusion, a head filled with post-MFA crap.

When the conversation comes up with other poets who are frustrated about power and influence and the system, I give my standard you-don't-have-to-participate, if you don't want to, you can pursue poetry however you like, however it works for you. It might not be the way you expected and yes, those people can make it tough for you to get certain jobs, have your work appear in certain venues -- but they can't stop you from poetry and if what you really care about is poetry -- the first service you can do for it is not to confuse it with acknowledgments and awards, etc. or all the other ways some choose to measure poetry. Those are measures.

There are always two responses. The first is something along the lines of "I never thought of it that way" or "Oh who do you think you're kidding, with your dopey little magazine and wannabe press -- that illegitimacy might be good enough for you, but I'm a serious poet."

For those folks, I recommend a publication that gives out free subscriptions to all the serious poets.

But that's not for me, I don't qualify which is good because I find being serious much too depressing.


At 9:54 AM, Blogger Ginger Heatter said...

On some level, I hear you, Reb. Anyone who still believes that the only way to be a poet is to publish in Poetry magazine, be anthologized in BAP, have a first book out from So-and-So Press has her head profoundly up her ass.

That said, I've personally been pretty lucky where publishing is concerned, and I'm sure that has influenced my perspective. I only started sending work out about a year ago, haven't submitted that much, and have received more encouragement than I ever could have expected--or frankly feel I even deserve. (For instance, having a poem on Poetry Daily was nice, but I don't really understand why it was selected. It's probably competent at best, but nothing special, and I hope to Sappho I have better work in me than that.)

But I have to ask, Reb, if you had to work a job you weren't passionate about and could barely make ends meet, where would you find the time and mental energy for No Tell Motel, No Tell Books, and your own poems? It's all good and well to urge poets not to participate in a system they don't like, but what's the alternative when one finds oneself short on time and cash?

I started my own magazine, but I simply don't have the time to both edit the thing AND seek out sources of funding for our contributors (who really deserve to be paid for their work).

Seth's put together a manuscript that's eminently worthy of consideration, but we can't afford to pay publishers to look at it right now. And even if he published it himself via print-on-demand, how would he get it into readers' hands? He's a lawyer and a poet, not a publicist. Does he need to give up public interest work in order to promote his poetry? And who finds mere self-promotion convincing anyway?

I want nothing more than to spend a couple of years focusing on my writing, and doing an MFA is the only means by which that seems possible. But at the moment, I don't know how I'm going to pay the rest of my tution for this semester, much less cough up $500 for grad school application fees.

These are the kinds of realites that get in the way of simply charting one's own course in poetry. That's why it's so irritating to see people/entities that do have the resources (Poetry magazine, for instance) fucking around with what they've got. Or at least that's part of it.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Reb said...

Hey Ginger, of course it's a huge time committment and we can't do everything. I had a job I wasn't passionate about (60 hours a week), and spent a lot of time writing in the evenings, on the weekend and occasionally on the job. Nobody was publishing my work -- and at the time it never occurred to me that I could start a magazine or press -- but I could have picked at least one of those and did it on some level.

And I spend a lot more time as a mother (even with two 'days' in daycare) doing that than I ever did working for a souless corporation or running a small business.

There's scale, and time and money management. Even if I sold my son, husband and the house and lived lived in a shack devoting every single moment of my waking hours -- I could never operate something on the monster scale of Poetry or BAP or whatever.

The NTM reading period is not always open, I don't accept unsolicted manuscripts (I often turn away folks who inquire) for No Tell Books -- that's soley because of time limitations.

Speaking of money, aside from a modest initial design cost (which I could have worked around) and a yearly domain registration -- running NTM doesn't cost money. As for the press, I choose to pay for a designer, buy review copies, give the author some payment and get an ISBN with global distribution ($100) -- but with POD, one could do it all for free or very little money.

Photocopies and a stapler aren't too expensive either.

These blogs are free.

And many of the DIY's I know aren't rolling in dough and have jobs and children just like the rest of it. Some have 4 kids and a job (hello Didi).

And there's other alternatives too.

But aside from that -- back then, when I was so angry, there were hundreds of other places, better suited for my work that I wasn't considering, wasn't patronizing -- because they didn't have the reputation I thought my work "deserved" -- I had an extremely narrow focus sending my work to only a handful of places. It was frustrating dealing with those editors, who had grants or university support -- I felt shut out, maybe I was, maybe I wasn't. It doesn't matter -- nothing was stopping me from poetry, if I didn't let it.

My intention with that post isn't to make anyone feel bad for not starting a press or a magazine, but instead point out other alternatives to participate and distribute. If one doesn't have the time or inclination to DIY, that still doesn't mean she has to agonize over not getting into a select handful of publications or whatever it is that she wants.

There are always going to be Paris Hiltons in the world -- people "born" with something they didn't earn and don't appreciate. Do we not appreciate our own selves and time enough to focus on what's important?

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Reb said...

Regarding that last line, it occurs to me that "what's important" is not the same for all. Obviously Paris Hilton is important to some, else I wouldn't keep reading about her.

For me, what's important is writing, trying to find an audience (however large or small) for my work and promoting the work of contemporaries I'm excited about.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger jeannine said...

This is a good conversation to have. Thanks Reb!

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Collin said...

Reb, this is one of the best posts I've read on a blog in a long time. Thanks for adding to the ongoing discussion and for your excellent poetry...which deserves to be in BAP. :)

At 12:59 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Ron Offen and Free Lunch seem to inspire righteous anger in people. I was glad to get his comments--not because they were helpful for my poems, but because some of them (the ones that didn't say "I don't get what's happening here" repeatedly) were so out-in-space that I realized he was basically a crank. And then I found some of his poetry and realized I wouldn't be too keen to publish it, either. And yet I still like the cranky-individualist model for journals.

At 1:02 AM, Blogger Reb said...

My anger has long since subsided -- I should probably write the "crank" a thank you letter. :)

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

Reb, I found this post through a link in Jilly Dybka's Poetry Hut Blog, I really appreciate what you've said here. I've avoided seeking an M.F.A. for a whole variety of reasons -- mainly that I've never been overly fond of most of the poetry that seems to come out of the M.F.A. / academic world (allowing always for individual exceptions).

Rather than putting myself through that, I've worked at various "day jobs" which is another way of saying jobs that pay enough for me to live on and that have little or nothing to do with writing. Sometimes the jobs have paid enough that I could pay some or all of the cost of publishing my books. Sometimes not, and then I've had to wait, and publish here and there in tiny magazines that in most cases (not all) have stopped publishing after a few issues.

But at no point have I stopped writing poems and, as you said, that's a separate (and, to me, more essential) thing than prestige and awards. Not that I would turn down a chance to be published in Poetry magazine or American Poetry Review or whatever, but I'm realistic about my chances, and the world (and my world) doesn't hinge on it. The "Best American Poetry" anthologies can be irritating in their presumption, but they stand small in the world in which poetry lives.

Thanks for posting this.

At 1:29 AM, Blogger Reb said...

Thanks for writing Lyle.


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